Although Dan Quinn played the occasion down, his first game against his former team will take place on Sunday. This game must have been marked on his calendar.
After building his reputation in Seattle, he leads a red-hot Falcons team into familiar territory. This is another litmus test for the high-octane offense and young defense. They've fared well against rabid crowds in Oakland, New Orleans, and Denver. This is arguably their biggest challenge yet, given how balanced Seattle is on both sides of the ball.
A rested Seahawks team won't go away easily. It's highly unlikely that the Falcons overwhelm their opponent for a fourth consecutive game. This game should go down to the wire, as both teams are vying to solidify themselves as the second best team (at least on paper) in the NFC. With a plethora of fascinating matchups, this should be an outstanding game. Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Inside the trenches
Although this isn't the most appealing matchup from a viewer's perspective, it will likely have the most significance determining the outcome. There is plenty of intrigue surrounding the Falcons' defensive line. Can they replicate what they did against Denver to some extent? No defense can average six sacks a game or have the fortunate of playing against a rookie quarterback every week. What good defenses feature is a pass rush that creates pressure from multiple directions. That didn't occur for Atlanta in September.
The last two games have been promising. Dwight Freeney is playing like his old self, while Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn are playing better. According to Pro Football Focus, Beasley and Clayborn combined for nine pressures, which includes five sacks last week. Seattle's offensive line is considered as one of the worst units in the league. That hasn't affected Russell Wilson in recent weeks, as he's been getting the ball out faster and making better decisions. After coming off a bye, his mobility should look better as well. There are plenty of favorable matchups against an undermanned offensive line. Generating pressure and hitting Wilson are two separate things. They need to affect him in some manner, otherwise it will be another long day. It doesn't help that Wilson is building a strong rapport with an old familiar foe.
Containing Jimmy Graham
After sustaining a ruptured patellar tendon against Pittsburgh last November, Jimmy Graham's future looked unclear. A once-feared player became an afterthought in Seattle's offense. Following his season-ending injury, Russell Wilson had one of the greatest statistical months in NFL history. Minimal expectations were set for the miscast coming off a serious injury. Graham has exploded with consecutive 100-yard games against the 49ers and Jets. The former Saint is making catches across the middle and giving defensive coordinators sleepless nights. Graham also contributed with a circus catch against the Jets, which essentially validated his comeback.
Several things have changed between Graham and his old favorite punching bag in Atlanta. A much faster defense featuring rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones is something that the stellar tight end didn't have to contend with two years ago. Graham doesn't have the luxury of playing in Sean Payton's offense anymore either. Neal has played exceptionally well over the past two weeks. Shutting out Greg Olsen for three quarters is a remarkable feat. He gives Dan Quinn a legitimate option for covering tight ends in man coverage, which the defense clearly lacked last season. If they start playing zone, Jones and De'Vondre Campbell are returning this week to handle coverage responsibilities. Covering tight ends has been a well-documented problem for Quinn's defense. With all three rookies healthy for the first time this season, they offer the best possibility towards containing Graham.
Powerful forces collide
Everyone is salivating over Julio Jones versus Richard Sherman. Based on Sherman shadowing top wide receivers (and Torrey Smith) over the past year, both players should be facing each other on nearly every snap. They haven't had too many previous encounters. In their 2013 playoff meeting, Seattle left Sherman on his preferred left side. That left him jawing with Roddy White, which produced a few memorable moments. Jones suffered a season-ending foot injury, before both teams met during the 2013 regular season. This is essentially the first time both players are meeting each other as established superstars.
How Kyle Shanahan uses Jones could play a pivotal role in this matchup. Sherman can struggle on the right side, as Brandon Marshall beat him on a touchdown two weeks ago. By constantly jamming wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, the Pro Bowl cornerback loves to impose his will. Trying to physically engage against a six-foot-three powerhouse like Jones can leave him off balance. Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson wrote an excellent piece about this matchup. He wrote extensively about Sherman's recent clash with Marshall, where Sherman was targeted eleven times.
Matt Ryan isn't going to be reckless like Ryan Fitzpatrick, but won't be conservative either. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris were tested on several occasions last week. Harris was fortunate that Ryan overthrew Jones on multiple occasions, as both throws should have resulted in big plays. This fantastic matchup has plenty of variables between Shanahan's play calling and battle at the line of scrimmage. Following a subdued performance against Denver, Jones is bound to receive more targets. How heavily will likely be decided on Seattle's willingness to leave Sherman alone or provide safety help.
Relying on the running game
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are starting to be recognized as NFL's best running back duo. Combining for 1,000 total yards in five games is incredible, especially when you consider the box score in Atlanta's opening day loss against Tampa Bay. Freeman is starting to carry the load more, while Coleman is destroying opposing linebackers in the passing game. Shanahan is effectively using both versatile backs on a weekly basis. They have played an integral role in two of Atlanta's past four victories. It shouldn't be any different against a stout Seahawks' defense. With major weather concerns in Seattle, they may have to run the ball more often.
It's difficult to judge Seattle's ability to stop the run. While their star-studded front seven is still playing at a high level, they have faced below average offensive lines or forced offenses into abandoning the run. Brandon Mebane was a key player on their defensive line, but he's gone. Besides drafting defensive tackle Jarran Reed, they didn't add anyone else to replace Mebane.
Atlanta's much improved offensive line is going to provide a significant challenge against their questionable interior front. There is no questioning Seattle's edge rushers or linebackers. Running up the middle against Tony McDaniel and Ahtyba Rubin could be their best option. Led by Alex Mack's outstanding play, opportunities should be there for the running game. Shanahan likes to diversify the running game, as you can see Jake Matthews and Andy Levitre knowing their assignments and opening up running lanes. Establishing the run will be massive for the Falcons in a hostile environment.
Seattle's defense is filled with exceptional players. It feels wrong not to mention Earl Thomas, who is the best safety in the league. How about Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, which is easily one of the top linebacker tandems in the league. They are capable of making game-changing plays, but the biggest concern consists in their pass rush. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril pose significant problems for any offensive line. Both players are constantly moving around, which makes pondering about specific matchups extremely difficult. Bennett does shift inside in their nickel package, which could pin him against Levitre or Chris Chester.
My podcast co-host Aaron Freeman referenced Bennett abusing Chester in a previous matchup. On a talented offensive line, Chester is considered as the weakest link, despite playing better in recent weeks. The aging guard is still prone to being overpowered in gruesome fashion. Bennett's vicious hands and power makes him a frightening matchup. How Ryan Schraeder bounces back will be crucial as well. Von Miller is going to overwhelm every right tackle in the league, so last week's poor performance wasn't surprising. Schraeder is going to face both stellar edge rushers, along with emerging star Frank Clark. He was playing at a high-level prior the Denver game. The reliable right tackle tends to fare better against power rushers than speed rushers. That could bode well for him against Bennett and Clark. The entire offensive line needs going to be watched closely, but Chester and Schraeder are likely going to be pitted with the most difficult matchups.